It appeared to be the classic "friend zone" story. Boy meets girl. They get to know each other at events that interest both. They keep in contact. She appreciates making a new friend. He sees her differently, which she finds out about when boy asks her out. Then they both discover their crossed signals and both feel a bit awkward. But that's when things get a little trickier because, in this story, the boy is a trans man, and the girl is me.
I am a cisgender, single, heterosexual female. I have spent more than 15 years as an equality ally and activist. I've marched and spoken, held signs and banners, and stood at a State House for a vote on nondiscrimination, and I drive a car that broadcasts my belief in equality in its stickers and in its vanity license plate.
After I politely told him that I valued his friendship but didn't feel more toward him, he became more aggressive in his approach. When that didn't work, he accused me of being transphobic and of faking my belief in equality. If you gathered all my friends, you wouldn't find just one orientation, just one age group, just one gender identity. Yet this suddenly meant nothing to the man.
At first I wanted argue. I wanted to list all the things that proved him wrong. But I paused. What if I asked questions rather than asserted myself? As I thought of his assertion that I wasn't a true ally, I couldn't help but wonder whether it is even fair for a cisgender person to believe herself to be on the same activism level as a trans person.
I have spent a great deal of my life working to educate myself and others about the inequities that currently exist for trans people throughout the U.S. I am a dual-licensed social worker who has focused on working with sexual minorities and with trans people. I've studied transgender history, and I have been lucky enough to have some absolutely incredible friends who happen to be trans. I've provided presentations to businesses and given lectures to students studying to be medical professionals so that they will be able to know the most appropriate terminology and behaviors when a transgender patient comes to see them.
Yet here I am, being accused of transphobia, and not knowing how to refute such without further offending the accuser.
It leads to other questions about the nature of privilege. If a man gets a job I was also hoping for, is it because I am a woman? If a white person gets a job a black person was in contention for, is it because of the person's skin color? When is a trans person rejected romantically for reasons other than being transgender?
Perhaps this is where ignorance and bigotry do the most damage. We hear about the gay bashings, we hear about the trans murders, but what about the anger, the suspicion of malicious intent, and the exasperation of perceived slights? When a person is mistreated for long enough by those with closed minds, is it any wonder that that same person views more benign events with suspicion?
I had treated him the way I would any man whom I wasn't interested in who asked me out: I politely declined. Maybe therein lies the rub; after decades of being mistreated, how does one differentiate between a negative outcome based on animus and one based on merits?
I must admit, I worry about asking this question. I worry that, by speaking up in any way, I might come across as another majority person who walks into minority issues, claims them, takes credit, and tells the minority members how to feel about it. Certainly this isn't what I intend to do. As said advocate, though, I have been let go from positions because of my equality bumper stickers, I have been looked at sideways, I've had my orientation and my genitalia questioned, and I have worried about my safety and that of my vehicle because of its pro-equality license plate.
It seems rude of me to equate my experiences with those of LGBT people, however. The discrimination and hazards trans people face are far greater than any experience I have had or will ever have. So I struggled, and I worried as I wrote this piece. If I were speaking only to allies, only to potential allies, it would be much easier to stand proud and speak up, but when the audience includes LGBT people, I wonder if standing on a soapbox and preaching at all isn't a position folks feel I should have or one I should take from them, as a non-LGBT person.
This wall of separation and intrinsic wariness worries me. I think about how much stronger our collective voice will be if we can find a way to bridge the differences and create a united front against the opposition.
Yet is it realistic to ask an LGB or T person to trust someone who doesn't identify as LGBT after years of being bullied at school, kept from rights in our court systems, or spoken to as lesser-than by cisgender heterosexuals? I cannot help but think about what first drew my teenage self to begin to fight for equality. The bravery, audacity, and dignity of the LGBT community inspired me then, and it inspires me daily.
Maybe now is the time for us all to be brave, individually and collectively, brave enough to trust people from outside our own communities, brave enough to speak out in support of a group you do not belong to, but support with every fiber of your being, and brave enough to begin or further conversations, even at the risk of speaking out of turn. More than anything else, it's time to be brave as we stand together, the Ls, the Gs, the Bs, the Ts, and the allies, in one voice, with one message, and with one goal: equality.